Should more "traditional" artwork in LDS church buildings should be replaced with more accurate depictions of the events portrayed? Many of the currently displayed art is highly westernized. But is the actual deception as important as the intended meaning of the display? See the following article for a brief discussion on this particular topic: https://religionnews.com/2016/03/17/mormons-kitsch-art-classic/

What do our readers think?

Full Citation for this Article: Editorial Board, SquareTwo Journal (2019) "Readers’ Puzzle, Fall 2019: The Issue of Church Art," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 3 (Fall 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleReadersPuzzleFall2019.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 6 Comment

I. Ashley Alley

While I appreciate the beauty and intention of the art within our places of assembly, I would love to see an intentional, artistic diversification and expansion within our churches and chapels. I have been pleased to notice that many temples feature a variety of artists with varying artistic styles. Temple artwork, particularly within the newest temples, depicts scenes of greater diversity than is typical of our chapels. I was moved to see depictions of Christ on the walls of our temples that felt much more accurate to His historical time period and ethnicity. I love seeing the inclusion of depictions of God's children in their beautiful variety and diversity of race, ethnicity, and culture. Why limit this expanded collection of beauty to temples, where attendance is by design more exclusive? I should hope that our chapels, places where visitors are not only welcomed but proactively invited to come, would also strive to demonstrate a more balanced collection of religious artwork. There is no shortage of artistic talent within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, so the possibility of even commissioning new pieces is not far-fetched.

While culturally "traditional" artwork (such as Carol Bloch, Arnold Frisberg, Greg Olson, etc.) may have sentimental meaning to those who grew up with those images, we should not be afraid of change and should embrace the opportunity to expand not only our own spiritual understanding but our depictions of spiritually significant historical events. Should I be blessed with children of my own, I would not be against using those traditional pieces of art as part of gospel instruction (they are so embedding in our older manuals, they may simply be unavoidable anyway), but I would take the opportunity to correct false ideas that may stem from those depictions. I would also seek to incorporate more diverse depictions as well. I want my children to be completely comfortable with (and aware of!) the fact that Jesus Christ was not a white, Anglo-Saxon man, despite how He is portrayed in most classic western art. I want the concept of diversity (racial, ethnic, cultural, etc.) as beautiful and powerful to be an integral part of my children's gospel learning. And I think that must start with understanding who Jesus Christ was and is with accuracy in artistic depictions. I do not want my children to relate to their Savior out of a mistaken belief that He looks like them. I do not want them to assume that those who do not look like them cannot access the power of Jesus Christ's Atonement, that His power is somehow reserved for those who look a certain way. I want more access to art that can help me teach that lesson and drive it home. I plan to decorate my home with such art and I would love to see such art also more prominently featured in our places of worship.


II. Kayley Corley

Representation matters. Highly westernized artwork rarely depicts people of color in any capacity. We are now a worldwide church with members all over the globe. Jesus and the apostles probably didn’t look like me, a woman of Anglo-Saxon descent. It’s a privilege to see artwork depict the saints as people who are similar to me, but it’s not the truth of the matter. For members who are not white, it can be difficult for them to find a place in a church where our main artwork doesn’t show people of color as examples of sainthood. In my opinion, we need our artwork to reflect real events as closely as we can, including the ethnicity of those involved, to retain historical integrity and help members see truly themselves in the church.


III. Michelle Brignone

First, I have travelled extensively and have haunted the great museums and cathedrals of the world. I have seen my fair share of masterpieces, but I have also seen an abundance of mediocre pieces. I think much of the “gospel art” is better than we give it credit for, and it is certainly better than anything I could produce. And, I might add, Kitschy, is a word that could be used to describe any number of ‘masterpieces’ of the renaissance, particularly if the name of the artist was hidden.

Second, one of the reasons the Catholic church used mosaics in its cathedrals, was so that parishioners, who could not understand the mass being performed in Latin, could at least look at the pictures, learn the bible stories, and contemplate their eternal destiny. In short, the art was used to educate parishioners and encourage them to be obedient and to contemplate spiritual things, if only for the hour during mass.

To that extent, the ‘traditional’ artwork used by the church serves very much the same purpose, and therefore fulfills the roll it was meant to play. Additionally, while Frieberg’s images of buff stripling warriors or an aged but fit Abinadi, or a fat King Noah are idealized, all art that is not a photograph is idealized. Furthermore, part of the job of a piece of art is to be symbolic. Justice is usually depicted as a blindfolded scantily clad woman holding scales in her hand, yet no one looks at the statue or painting of justice and focuses on the scantily clad woman, they see her as being symbolic that justice is blind and must weigh the good and bad/pros and cons of each decision. The same is true for Delacroix’s famous image of ‘Liberty’ leading the French people in battle, that hangs in the Louvre. The painting was never intended to be taken literally and no one wonders why a bare breasted woman was leading the charge, something that most agree would have never actually happened. The painting is symbolic of many things. Images of Peter always holding keys is not ‘accurate’ as I am sure Peter did not walk around with physical keys, but is symbolic of Peter receiving the keys of the priesthood.

Furthermore, the ‘propaganda’ art during times of war, such as a buff Rosie the Riveter, was also not an ‘accurate’ depiction, but meant to convey a message. In the case of Rosie, women, who were sacrificing the men in their lives for the war effort, and holding down the fort and the factories in the men’s absence, were the strength that kept the country running during the crisis. Her strength is portrayed in well-muscled arm. To insist gospel art has to be absolutely accurate, unfairly holds it to a different standard than any other art form.

In reality, were the strippling warriors all weightlifters? Probably not, but while they would have probably been shorter and thinner, they were teenage boys who spent their days working and eating healthy food, as did Abinadi, so their depiction as being very fit is not a stretch. Furthermore, their physical strength, portrayed in the pictures, could easily be symbolic for their spiritual strength. Similarly, fat King Noah could be symbolic of his gluttony and laziness.

The point being, the pictures do not have to be completely accurate, as religious art has always included just as much symbolism as it has accurate story telling. Do I think the church should branch out and use pieces that are more inclusive? Yes, but they are already doing this. One of the reasons for the art competition held in the conference center is to find new art and artists. More recent art depicts a more diverse membership and is more inclusive, and therefore, in the words of the puzzle, more accurate.


IV. B. Kent Harrison

I definitely favor displaying some of the more modern LDS art in our chapels. Some of it is good, some not so good.

First of all, however, a few comments on traditional art. The depiction of Christ and the rich young ruler, by Hofmann, appears in our chapel and others. Frankly, I am getting a little tired of it. i am also a little tired of Harry Anderson's paintings. I like Arnold Friberg's paintings, but they too are becoming a little too familiar. (Familiarity, unfortunately, breeds contempt.)

I love the grandeur and sweep of Michelangelo's paintings and sculpture.

The Church used to show Carl Bloch's art a lot in its publications. I don't see that much any more. Some of his paintings really speak to me, like the majesty of the risen Christ as the repentant Thomas kneels at his feet, or the angel, with arms around the Savior, comforting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. There was a similar one, that was displayed a few years ago in the BYU Museum of Art, in an exhibition on the Savior. I don't remember the artist at the moment, but it, even more than Bloch's painting, conveyed the extreme pathos of the occasion. Christ is a broken figure--one's heart goes out to Him. Bloch's painting of the women and others gathered around Christ's body similarly touches me. I have on my desk a picture of Mary, holding the babe in her arms and kissing him, and then her grief-stricken face as she holds the bruised, battered body of her Son after He has been taken down from the cross.

Rembrandt has a series of etchings, on display in a European museum (Munich, maybe) showing Christ's crucifixion and His descent from the cross, that are heart-tugging. Were it possible, I would like to have them in my home.

There is something to be said about having original art on display. Larry Christensen, a former neighbor of mine, painted a scene of Christ's coming out ot the tomb, that hangs in our chapel. We have some of his paintings--a head study of the suffering Christ, one of the two-year old being presented with gifts from the Magi. Stewart Heimdal, now deceased, did a fireside where, as we watched, he painted the head of Christ, in agony on the cross, telling the story during the process. Most of the viewers were turned off by the realism of the depiction, but one bought it. If she hadn't, I might have done so.

Several contemporary LDS artists have works seen frequently in our chapels. Walter Rane's head of Christ is very familiar. It doesn't do much for me. I like Minerva Teichert's paintings. Gary Smith's sculptures are very fine. Liz Lemon Swindle's paintings are lovely; we have a print of one. Brian Kershisnik's paintings are excellent, like the one showing a crowd of angels and others watching as the Savior is born on earth. i would like to see some of his works in our chapels. Some art that may not be so familiar is that done by Al and Elspeth Young (she is the granddaughter of our former next-door neighbors.) The two of them have done several pieces for temples; one of hers hangs in the lower corridor of the Provo City Center Utah temple, and she has illustrated books on the women of the Old and New Testaments, using some of my neighbors as models.

Not too many paintings of Christ grip me. I don't much like those that treat Him as too familiar. True, He is our Elder Brother, but He is also a God. Those that mean most to me show Him as majestic, all-loving, commanding, yet also those that show His total surrender to the incredible pain of the Atonement, both in the garden and on the cross. One of our previous General Authorities--President McKay, perhaps, remarked, in his eighties, that he was just beginning to understand the Atonement. I feel the same way.


V. Rachel Zirkle

I believe there is much opportunity to broaden the artistic landscape of our church buildings. True, we have a handful of artists whose work has been cemented in our religious culture---Arnold Friberg, Harry Anderson, and the like—whose Westernized images have played a role in our religious learning as we’ve grown up in the Church. But, we have reached a glorious point in the restoration where many of our fellow church members did not “grow up in the Church,” and instead are grafted in from many different walks of life. We are a global religion. I would like to see the artwork in our church buildings reflect that.

Anecdotally, my dad is a Bishop at the church building that shares the parking lot with the Atlanta, Georgia temple. He has shared with me in the past that often missionaries will have people investigating the Church come through the church building to study the artwork and hopefully feel the Spirit as they do so. However, a number of times, he’s found that these investigators finish their tour wondering why no one in the artwork looked like them. No one had their skin color in any of the pictures. Would they be welcome in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? My dad found this heartbreaking—of course all are welcome and all are alike to the Savior of the World. Wouldn’t it be great if the art in our church buildings reflected that?

I don’t think we need to banish any artwork, it all tells a part of our religious story, but I do believe we need to make room to be more inclusive and tell a broader story. This could easily be achieved by updating artwork in the church buildings. We could also use a variety of artwork in new manuals, on Church websites, and other social media platforms. I think the Church has begun to do this with the new Come Follow Me manuals, and it adds depth to our learning. I also love that the Church has an international art competition to “showcase the breadth of Latter-day Saint artists and help to develop the Church History Museum art collection.” It is beautiful to see our same religious moments depicted in different styles, with different cultural flavor, by different artists--all with their own testimony to share through art. This is a way for us to share the gospel with the world and help the world connect with the gospel.



VI. Miriam Deaver

"Walking through church buildings, we might find that the paintings are of very beautiful, white people demonstrating stories from the scriptures. Growing up looking at these images has shaped my mind to instinctively picture the Savior as an Americanized white man with a brown beard. Though this hasn’t been bad thing for a white woman, as I can easily picture him as my brother, I have recently begun to question that picture in my mind. As the church has grown in number and diversity (woohoo!) we find that these Westernized images support only one subset of our membership. This isn’t a new occurrence. Christ’s image was widely accepted as white since the Middle Ages. Symbolism reigned during the Middle Ages and the purity of Christ was shown through his whiteness. As time progressed, his image then lost any semblance of “Jewishness” as Anti-Semitism grew and spread across the Western world.

If we look at the evolution of depictions of Christ from a historical perspective, I think we would find more reason to attempt to return to an accurate portrayal of our Savior during his lifetime. The exciting thing about this period of time in Church of Jesus Christ history is that we are attempting to raise the bar of our artwork. The Center for Latter-Day Saint Arts was founded three years ago with a mission to “display and perform art by Latter-day Saints in New York City and elsewhere; to publish scholarship and criticism about our art to reach a wider public; and to establish a comprehensive archive of Latter-day Saint arts, 1830 to the present.” I hope that from this undertaking, the artists creating works for ward buildings and temples start to really consider historical accuracy, leading to a more inclusive approach to our members and maybe subtlety encouraging us to study and rely on truths more than emotional response.

Art, in my belief, is the intersection of aesthetics and an idea. One without the other leaves us with a lesser experience. In the church, our music and art support the goal of inviting the spirit to be with us as we worship. But we should not rely on appealing only to an immediate emotional connection- which I believe comes from uncomplicated images. Instead our visual art should encourage lengthy contemplation and meditation, much like pondering on scripture. If we look at the Choir at Temple Square, the music they perform is musically challenging and Mack Wallberg has contributed greatly to the sound of contemporary choir music through his expertise. Our visual artists should seek the same high level of contributions to the arts- and what better way than to lead the world to return to a historical representation of Christ.

P. S. There are so many talented artists among us, one of my favorites being Jorge Cocco Santangelo. He’s already doing what we’re talking about here using abstraction in his practice to present a universal but more historically accurate depiction of Christ. His work is already being used by the church but hasn’t yet shown up in our buildings (I’m sure that takes a while)."